Menz sheep breeding cooperative members review ram quality. Credit, CGIAR

Menz sheep breeding cooperative members review ram quality. Credit, CGIAR

Cross breeding is the process of breeding with the intention to create offspring that share the traits of both parent lineages or to produce an animal with hybrid vigour (the improved or increased function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring).[1] In the developing world, cross breeding mainly seeks to improve the milk production of dairy cattle. Unlike milk production in developed countries where certain breeds of cows produce around 30 litres a day,[2] cows in some developing countries can only produce 1-2 litres per day.[3]  Although productive capacity varies depending on the quality of feeding, nutrition and animal husbandry, much has to do with genetics.

Cattle in Kenya. Credit, S. MacMillan, ILRI

Cattle in Kenya. Credit, S. MacMillan, ILRI

There are 2 dominant species of cattle in the world: the taurine cattle of the temperate climates of Europe, North Asia and West Africa and the zebu cattle of the hot arid and semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia. Although these species can naturally cross, today they are very different because of the selective breeding for increased milk production in taurine cows, which has led to the dominance of very high producing breeds such as the Holstein-Friesian.

Most smallholder farmers in Africa use indigenous livestock breeds, adapted to local conditions. For example, natural selection has produced zebu cattle with a high degree of heat tolerance. The zebu is also resistant to many tropical diseases and able to survive long periods of feed and water shortages. However, their dairy potential is poor as they yield low quantities of milk, mature late and usually do not let down milk unless simulated by the sucking of a calf.[4]

A holstein-friesian bull at the Kenya Animal Genetic Research Centre. Credit, P. Karaimu, ILRI.

A holstein-friesian bull at the Kenya Animal Genetic Research Centre. Credit, P. Karaimu, ILRI.

Improving the productivity of indigenous breeds can be done with the introduction of foreign ones. In Zimbabwe and several countries in East Africa this has occurred with much success. For example, in Kenya improved dairy cattle account for 23% of the total cattle population and 75% of dairy cattle in eastern and southern Africa. Some countries, such as Uganda and Ethiopia, lag far behind; improved breeds only account for 3% and 1% respectively.[5]

Due to the low exchange of breeding animals and materials, as well as limited access and use of technologies such as artificial insemination, livestock populations remain mainly inbred.[6] High rates of inbreeding in Kenya, for example have also lead to reductions in dairy production from 6-7 litres per day down to just 3 litres.[7] Introducing breeding technologies such as cross breeding will be important for raising dairy productivity, but this will need to be met with support to enable farmers to manage this increased productivity. In many cases, extension services are already strained, but will be integral for smallholders to manage improved breeds.[8]

Contribution to Sustainable Intensification

Cross breeding allows the improvement of standard production traits such as milk production, growth rate and production of total animal protein. Improved variety of cattle and other livestock can increase production efficiency and can reduce the amount of resources and inputs farmers require for livestock production. Higher levels of dairy production can in turn help smallholders respond to the growing demand for dairy products across Africa with the potential to improve incomes provided the necessary extension and marketing services and opportunities are accessible.  Further, livestock are expected to be affected by climate change in several ways: feed and water limited by droughts, increasing heat stress and changes to disease prevalence.[9] Heat stress, for example, reduces production efficiency, lowers the animal’s welfare and is expected to result in significant loss due to death. Cross breeding can increase the resilience of the species to heat stress by reducing the amount of resources they require, thereby increasing the stability of livestock and farmers’ livelihoods.

Benefits and limitations
Reduction of inbreeding

One major advantage of crossbreeding is that it reduces levels of inbreeding, which often causes undesirable recessive disorders and a loss of genetic variation, as well as inbreeding depression (reduced biological fitness). Furthermore, crossbreeds benefit from “hybrid vigour” (also called heterosis), whereby traits such as fertility, health and longevity are particularly enhanced by crossbreeding. Other desirable traits such as milk or meat production can also be improved through this method, but these can be more unpredictable.

Costs and level of skills required

Crossbred livestock requires support from a number of improved management techniques, such as vaccination against local diseases, tick control or improved feed in order to achieve their genetic potential. Thus it requires ‎‎training as well as inputs, to which smallholders and pastoralists may lack access, or for which they simply do not have the financial resources.[10] A study found that farmers with access to extension information generally kept crossbred goats, confirming that there is the possibility of increasing the genetic potential of local breeds through crossbreeding.[11]

Rate of adoption

The input costs for breeding – labour, feeds and vaccinations – are high, such that on-farm cross breeding may not offer any financial benefits to the farmers. Farmers also tend to prefer local breeds limiting adoption of improved breeds. Therefore it may be of greater benefit to integrate indigenous breeds into selection programmes to improve adoption rates of improved crossbreeds.[12] Community based cross-breeding may be one way to ensure that farmer and pastoralist preferences are taken into account.

Community-based cross breeding

Modern livestock breeding methods are often unsuitable for poor households with small flocks of sheep and goats, due to the technologies and costs involved and the skills required. Community-based breeding increases the productivity and profitability of indigenous breeds without undermining their resilience and genetic integrity, and without expensive interventions. Farmers are trained to improve selection methods – for example, retaining especially fast-growing ram lambs for breeding, rather than selling them young. Furthermore, the community flock is usually combined to create a large gene pool from which breeding rams can be selected. In many cases, a recording system to monitor the performance of individual animals is set up leading to continuous genetic improvement.[13]

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Case Studies

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Case study 1: Community-based sheep breeding in Ethiopia
Owners select breeding animals. Credit CGIAR

Owners select breeding animals. Credit CGIAR

As modern livestock breeding methods are often unsuitable for poor households, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and partners have developed a more suitable alternative: community-based breeding programmes focusing on improving indigenous sheep breeds suited to smallholder conditions. Such community-driven breeding programmes have proven highly successful in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru and more recently in Ethiopia.

Molale is a rural community located north east of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. Around 2,700 households grow crops and raise sheep at altitudes above 3,000 metres. In 2009, ICARDA, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and the Austrian University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) worked with the community to improve local varieties of sheep.  The 5-year community based breeding program was designed to improve the breeds, teach farmers to keep up to date records and develop a breeding cooperative. A data collection and recording system was put in place with ‘community animal breeding workers’ acting as enumerators and record-keepers supported by a research centre. All animals were tagged and tracked. After 7 rounds of selection were completed, the community established the ‘Menz sheep production and fattening cooperative,’ offering a viable business enterprise for many community members.

Community-based breeding increases the productivity and profitability of indigenous breeds without undermining their resilience and genetic integrity, and without expensive interventions.  In Ethiopia, more than 500 households in remote communities have used the approach successfully for 5 years. The genetic traits of the animals have improved, so has their overall health and productivity and incomes from lamb sales have improved substantially for the community.[1]

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Case study 2: Development of the Sunandini cattle breed in Kerala, India
calf born through AI. Credit_thehindu

Sunandini calf born through artificial insemination. Credit The Hindu

Traditionally, Keralites kept cattle for their agricultural operations and for the production of manure. This resulted in the formation of small, nondescript cattle that are hardy, resistant to disease and well adapted to the hot and humid environment. However, their milk yield is low at around 400kg per lactation, which lasts about 300 days. Even under well-managed conditions a superior strain of local cow only yields 793kg per lactation.

In 1963, a bilateral project, the Indo-Swiss Project Kerala (ISPK) – now named Kerala Livestock Development Board (KLDB) – was established to develop a new cattle breed through cross-breeding with the Sunandini breed and build a dairy-based agriculture system in the high ranges of Kerala. Approximately 2,000 farmers participated in the project. For the first time in the country, the deep-frozen semen technique (that permits semen storage for years without any significant decrease in quality) was introduced. The breeding programme began in Kerala with just a small proportion of breedable female cattle population. By 1980, this programme had expanded very quickly, covering the entire breedable cattle population of 1.8 million. The positive response of the farmers, coupled with intensive extension work and support from an efficient technical programme, made it possible to achieve fruitful results from cross breeding through artificial insemination (AI). The cattle-breeding programme resulted in a substantial change in the structure of the cattle population, integrating a high number of cross-bred cattle. The annual milk production in the state of Kerala increased from 0.164 million tonnes in 1966 to 19.3 million tonnes by 1993.[1]

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Case study 3: Tilapia breeding and cultivation
Woman in aquaculture, Bangladesh. Credit World Fish Centre

Woman in aquaculture, Bangladesh. Credit World Fish Center

Dr Modadugu Vijay Gupta is the former head of the Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) program at the World Fish Center and winner of the World Food Prize, 2005. His most notable work was with new high yielding breeds of Tilapia, produced through an intensive selection program based on an initial founder population of eight interbreeding strains.[1]

By a training farmers and scientists in Southeast Asia in breeding and cultivation techniques, both fish yields and rural incomes increased. Using techniques based on the work of Dr Gupta, poor farmers and rural families across much of South and Southeast Asia have turned abandoned ponds, roadside ditches, seasonally flooded fields, and other bodies of water as small as 300-400 square meters into “mini-factories” which produce fish for food and income. For example, more than 150,000 seasonal ponds in Bangladesh which were lying fallow before Dr Gupta’s intervention are now blooming with fish.

The percentage of Bangladeshi women involved in aquaculture has grown from almost none to about 60%, safeguarding the long-term economic and social stability of rural communities who rely on fish farming. In India, average annual fish production increased from 0.5 tonnes per hectare in the early 1970s to between 2 and 10 tonnes per hectare, whilst in Bangladesh fish yields increased from 0.3 tonnes per hectare to over 2.5 tonnes per hectare in less than a year – including 1 tonne per hectare harvests in the dry season. Across Asia fish farmers can now provide nutrition for their families with enough fish left to bring in added income.[2]

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